Megan McArdle on Failure

I agree with most of what Megan McArdle has to say about failure in this EconTalk podcast.

Why is failure valuable?

…because that’s how we get information.

What about the typical success story?

…when you see the cover of a business magazine, it’s always this genius with his folded arms staring at you and the piece goes through all these brilliant ideas. But in fact when you talk to entrepreneurs, that isn’t how they experienced it. Usually how they experienced it was: We had this great idea and then it turned out that didn’t work, so we did something else. Or it turned out: It didn’t work and we went out of business.

Where do we learn to start avoiding failure?

…having failed is an important skill that kids need to learn. And the right time for them to learn it is when they are kids. And when the consequences for that are actually pretty low.

One of the book talks that I gave, a 10th grade girl came up to me afterwards and she said, You know, I would really love to try to fail, but I’m in an AP (Advanced Placement) program; only 5% of the people who are in the program are going to get a 4.0; and I just can’t afford to take a class that I wouldn’t get an A in.

And I just thought: America, you are doing it wrong. It’s not that kids shouldn’t work hard in school. That’s not what I’m saying. But the idea that at the age of 15 you have to be so self-protective that you can’t take any risks at all is insane. Because when is going to be a better time? When she is looking for an assisted living facility?

I might rephrase that first part, though. Having failed isn’t the important skill. Learning to deal with failure is and learning to overcome the fear of failure is another important skill.

It seems like soon after we get past the trials and errors of learning to walk, run, talk and ride bikes, we forget that trial and error is how we learn and we tighten our tolerance for error.

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1 thought on “Megan McArdle on Failure

  1. When people aren’t forced to deal with failure, they don’t grow.

    I found this article about poverty and thought it might be of interest:

    To put into context what not too long ago was considered a comfortable lifestyle, but is considered intolerable to some of the entitlement class today, here’s one comment:

    “I grew up middle class in the suburban 1970s and our lifestyle then would be considered dirt-poor today. We had one black-and-white TV, one phone, and no air conditioning. If you check the welfare lineup today, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone living under those conditions. We had one car while growing up and my mom used it once a week to go get groceries. When my jeans got a hole in the knee, she’d iron on a patch. We only got presents on our birthday or Christmas and if it was something big like a bike, you’d be delirious with gratitude.”

    Gee, that sounds like my house growing up!

    So, where do we start learning to avoid failure? I’m afraid that the progressives, by all but ensuring that people never have the opportunity to deal with failure (or the possibility of failure), have contributed greatly to the lack of development and progress or our underclass. When schools, youth sports teams, and our government guarantee that everybody be declared a winner, we are all losers.


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